robert gilmore meets people
This week: Retired dancer Patricia Nelson
Fan dancer to secretary of village church
Patricia Mildred Nelson (70), bland and benign secretary of the little Anglican church at Waiwera – “Waiwera is really Catholic and Jewish territory, Catholics from Puhoi and Jews from Auckland” describes herself in her income tax return as “retired fan dancer”.
“You ask what a fan dancer is? You’re of an age where you should know.
“Between the wars, a standard act at quality night clubs was a fan dance. A girl with huge ostrich feather fans pranced about on a stage or small dance floor pretending to be naked. All you needed to do was expose bare shoulder and the customers imagined the rest. It was a big bluff.
“I’ve fan danced in London, Paris, Berlin, Vichy, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Batavia, Sourabaya, Sydney, Melbourne …
“But the only time I’ve ever been nude in public was in a ditch outside my home town of Woodville. My father, riding past on a horse, unfortunately saw me.
“I was five. Boys of about the same age from the Woodville railway settlement talked me into undressing.
“When my father rode up, the boys were examining me intently – and silently. Unlike me, they did not come from a farm and they seemed to know nothing. I’m sure they had no evil intent. They were only five.
“I was not shy about undressing. I had posed nude at four for a very nice neighbour, the artist Gottfried Lindauer.
He lived just up the road from us in Woodville.
“His studio was a glass-house in which he grew lovely grapes.
“I used to visit him mainly for grapes.
“There on the wall is a pencil drawing he gave me – of Maoris in front of a whare.
“Lindauer died in Woodville 51 years ago.
“The incident in the ditch caused my parents to send me to a boarding school in Wellington, Chilton House. It was run by the tartar sister of my father’s first wife, who died.
“The day a new girl enrolled she was shown by that lady, Mrs Henry Smith, how to get undressed the way Mrs Smith said she always undressed – under a nightgown.’
Pat Nelson was born into New Zealand landed gentry.
Her father, Harry Nelson, was a descendant of the Nelsons of Warwick, England. They were cement and gelatin makers.
In the early 1840s two Nelson brothers in their early 20s migrated to Hawke’s Bay. They established sheep farms at Waipukurau and on the Heretaunga Plains and a flax mill at Waipukurau.
In 1875, experiments the brothers commissioned at the family gelatin plant in England caused them to design new meat-preserving and tallow-preparing machinery.
In 1880, in partnership with James N. Williams, son of Bishop William Williams, they opened the Tomoana meat works, opened whole-sale outlets in London, installed refrigerating plant in the barque Prince of Wales at Plymouth and created a permanent national distribution centre in the barque.
Harry Nelson managed a bacon factory, an offshoot of Tomoana, and lived on a 500-acre sheep farm on the outskirts of Woodville. His [step] mother was a daughter of Bishop Williams.
“I was brought up with my parents, who were fun, a spaniel and a pony.
“Woodville then had five pubs, five churches and 25 racing stables.
“One thing I’ll always remember about my childhood was the fact that dad carried no money. He would buy toilet paper by the gross, sugar by the sack, and flour by the sack and all would be debited eventually against the wool cheque.
“This meant that when I asked dad for a penny or threepence for an ice-cream he would say, with embarrassment, that he had no money on him.
“I missed all this at Chilton House. But dad had arranged that I go five afternoons a week to Miss Beere’s dancing class in town. That meant missed lessons. But my mother had taught me to read by four.
“After I had pneumonia and that old tartar at Chilton House wouldn’t let me go to bed, dad switched me to Nga Tawa.
“We wouldn’t have used the phrase then, but we had a ball. More than 200 boarders with 40 acres to play in. Compulsory Latin, and we said grace and sang carols in Latin.
“We had awful food on Fridays. We used to say it was shark and paperhanger’s paste.
‘It was all a big bluff’
“The other day I asked a girl who’s just left Nga Tawa now, Liz Edmundson, what they ate on Friday. She said ‘Shark, paperhanger’s paste and boiled baby.’
“I was a failure academically. But I was in every team. And, until seeing in the past few years on TV Russian and Rumanian girl gymnasts, I thought I was a good acrobat.
“I had wanted, since Chilton House days to be an actress.
“With that in mind, I left Nga Tawa at 17.
“It was 1924.
“Money was more or less not mentioned at home. There was plenty, so it didn’t matter.
“But I wanted to make my own money and enjoy independence. So I assembled a revue of young girls and put on two shows in Woodville and two in Dannevirke.
“That made me enough to go first-class to Sydney in the Maunganui – or was it the Marama? I have since crossed the Tasman by sea more than 100 times. I hate planes.
“I got a job as a ballet girl in the pantomime ‘Dick Whittington. And then ballet roles in ‘No, No Nannette,’ in ‘Lady be Good’ and in ‘Mercenary Mary.’
“At the pantomime there was a backstage bookie who took threepenny, and sixpenny bets from the little fairies.
“I toured all Australia. And became bolshy for the first time. A producer wanted 12 girls and 12 boys to cross the Australian desert by train, second-class, sitting up for four days and four nights.
“We made a demo on Port Augusta station and refused to board the train. Stage manager Jack Phillips, brother of Stiffy of ‘Stiffy and Mo,’ backed down and we got sleepers.
“During the demo, Phillips whacked at our legs with an umbrella, trying to drive us aboard.
“For my part in the demo I got fired when the tour ended.
“So I returned briefly to Woodville to arrange to go to London and study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
“Grandfather Nelson gave me £100 and said he was glad I was going on the stage. He didn’t say it in as many words, but I imagine he felt the Nelsons were becoming worthy but dreary. None of them did anything interesting.
“I never got to RADA. It didn’t open until June, and I landed in England in January.
“I enrolled at Max Rivers’ dancing school.
“Then I met a theatrical agent who was looking for an understudy for the role of an Al Capone mistress in Edgar Wallace’s ‘On the Spot’.
“I said I’d been a star in Australia. In truth I had one line in a show in Perth. I remember it still: ‘My father was a bookmaker and told me never to take tips.’
“When ‘On the Spot’ left London and went on the road, I got the role I’d been understudying.
“Charles Laughton was the lead. He lived at Steynes, liked gardening, used a lot of blood and bone and was allergic to soap and water. I had to snuggle up to him and inhale blood and bone.
“After a seduction scene, Edgar Wallace himself told me I looked as if I’d just come from a vicarage tennis party – not from bed.
“But I was not born for the stage.
“I have no great talent in anything. I can’t sing. I demonstrate how you can go round the world in comfort with little talent but with a good shape – and a bit of dancing and acrobatic ability.
“About 1929 I went from London to Paris with an English dance troupe, the Jackson Girls. Charlie Chaplin had been a stage friend of the original Jacksons and was sentimental about it. He used to come behind stage with ice-creams for us.
“I was in Paris five years. At the Folies Bergere I was on the same programme as Mistinguette and at the Casino I was with Josephine Baker. I was two years at the Lido.
“In the summers I used to travel with a French show – to Switzerland, Algeria and Morocco. And I went to Italy with a very second-rate French-Italian ‘Rose Marie’.
“I was in Paris for my 21st.
“Then, in the early 30s, I settled in Berlin. The worst excesses of Nazism hadn’t started, and I admired Hitler for the fitness of the young Germans – after what seemed to me the then decadent softness of the young French.
“I played at the UFA studios in Berlin a small part in a Roger Dann film, ‘Du bist mein Liebe.’
“I’d already been in a French film, L’Amour a L’Americaine.’ When I saw it, I was appalled to see that, when I was nervous, I did that which I used to do at Nga Tawa when reading the lesson – flick my bloomer elastic. Maybe the French liked this.
“By the time the late Ernest Rolls took me back to Australia to star in a new show, “Tout Paris’ – (Pat Nelson’s ‘skite-book’ clippings attest to her stardom) – I had acquired two skills, fan-dancing, which was a great fake, and doing the rumba, then newly imported from Latin America. I learnt the rumba in a Martinique bar in Marseilles.
“I came home by way of the States and fan-danced and did the rumba in the Latin Quarter, a night club in New York and the College Inn in Chicago.
“In San Francisco I could hardly find the little New Zealand liner Maunganui among the big transpacific ships.
“I called at Woodville on the way. The women’s division of the Farmers’ Union very kindly asked me to address their afternoon tea.
“What the hell is my point of contact with these sweet women, I asked. I spoke on a day in the life of a French housewife.
“It seemed a great success – until, at question time, a farmer’s wife asked what price butterfat was fetching in France.
“ ‘Tout Paris’ was a success. It toured most of Australia. Then half the company hived off to bring another show to New Zealand.
“Those who went to New Zealand included our conductor, Eric Mareo, and his wife. Mareo later went to jail in Auckland for the murder of his wife.
“But he always said he was innocent and eventually he was let out.
“I stayed with ‘Tout Paris’ in Australia until, one day in 1933, between the matinee and the night show, I was married.
“Read this, from the Sydney Daily Telegraph:
“With body deliciously sun-tanned and hair of the finest silk, a platinum blonde from the Folies Bergere is to be seen nightly at the Sydney Royal, dancing one of the most exotic dances ever seen on the Australian stage, a Parisian version of the rhumba.
“And now the platinum blonde is to figure in real romance. She is to marry the son of one of Australia’s wealthiest squatters.
“’About three times a year, Don, well-endowed son of Mr and Mrs D. S. McLarty, from a 30,000 acre station at Bundure, in the Riverina, pays a courtesy call on Sydney.
“’Each visit is in his shining aluminium Frazer-Nash, one of the fastest cars in Australia.
“’The blonde is wearing a gorgeous square-cut diamond, huge, with a maltese cross cut into the back of the stone.’
“That ring is about the only relic of a marriage that lasted only four years.
“I gave the stage away – temporarily. We stayed a month with his mother. I decided to remove him from that influence and set up house in Melbourne. But then there was no housekeeping money and I had to go back to the stage.
“I then discovered the good money and good life of the then Far East.
“The manager of the Grand Oriental Hotel, the G. O. H. it was called, in Colombo, I had known in Paris. I wrote to him. He engaged me – to a do a fan dance, a rhumba and a toe-tap number on a drum.
“He later got me a job at Raffles, in Singapore. Then to the Cathay Hotel, in Shanghai, owned by the late Sir Victor Sassoon.
“Then, about 1935 the Japanese bombed Shanghai and I left – to dance at the Hong Kong Hotel, the Oriental and the Peninsula.
“After a spell in hospital with malaria, I danced in hotels in Batavia and Surabaya.
“In 1936 I went back to Australia. I danced at Romano’s night-club in Sydney and then went on tour in a new Rolls show.
“I had to smother my body in blue grease, climb down a tree and do a ‘native’ dance.
“In 1937, I divorced my husband.
“Some years ago he showed up at Waiwera. He stayed at the hotel for three months. He thought my outboard motor was too small, and he gave me a new big one.
“On the eve of World War II Jewish refugees from Germany started coming into Australia. They didn’t like the furniture in the Australian shops. Nor did I.
“So I designed some simple, elegant, functional furniture and turned a place in Surrey Hills into a factory and a shop in King’s Cross into a retail outlet. I’m still using some of that pre-war furniture here at Waiwera. It looks good and is good.
“But I kept on dancing.
“After cracking my coccyx while doing a somersault at Romano’s I was in hospital for seven months.
“Wartime price control on furniture in Australia did not suit me. After selling out to an employee I returned to New Zealand for a trip.
“But getting sea passage across the Tasman in wartime was so difficult that I became marooned in New Zealand – for ever, as it turned out.
“I started a junk shop in Christchurch in 1944. Wartime shortages were such that junk shops filled a great need. I sold, for example, cups without handles for 3d. Couldn’t get enough of them.
“After being burnt out, I started an antique shop, and after that, I opened my Blue Room restaurant at 570 Colombo St.
“In 1956 I sighted Waiwera for the first time. I fell in love with it. I’ve been here ever since.
“In this little house – I’m the only year-round private resident in the main street – is everything I want.
“Hot mineral water on tap – good for my arthritis – coal range in the kitchen, open fire.
“Until I became too arthritic about two years ago to hop in and out of a boat I fished every day.
“Now I keep two families in eggs and they keep me in fish. I grow all my own vegetables.
“My events are Best Bets, on Wednesday and Friday, Flash on Friday and Church on Sunday. Three years ago I put about 100 bucks in the TAB, and my balance there now is about $290.
“I meet interesting strangers at church. One was a nice-looking, no-longer young man who sang hymns loudly and well without using the hymn-book. He has been in a cathedral choir in England.
“Life is never dull.
“Late one night I heard many voices at the beach and noticed bright lights. I thought it was the crayfish boat, and I walked over to the beach with some money.
“But it was police from Auckland, bringing ashore cans of drugs which had been thrown overboard from a passing ship – presumably for drug-smugglers.”
Photo captions –
At 70, Pat Nelson – pictured walking her two dogs – says she enjoys the best of all worlds at Waiwera.
On the Bund, a waterfront boulevard in Shanghai, in the early 30s, dancing girl Pat Nelson is hauled in a rickshaw.
A rarity in the 1920s and 30s, an international fan dancer from the Hawke’s Bay landed gentry – ladies and gentlemen, Miss Pat Nelson.